San Rafael Swell – The North side of I-70

Read on for more information about the North side of the swell from a local.

Popular meeting place

Ah the swell, the desert, my playground and where I love to go the most near my home.

My usual day visits are on what the locals call this side of I-70. This is where most of my mini adventures play out. We have “The Wedge” or Little Grand Canyon, Cedar Mountain, and several pull off spots for petroglyphs, pictographs, and even dinosaur footprints. Not to mention the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, scenic Buckhorn Wash, and the Swinging Bridge, amongst many other neat-o things to see. 

 Just a few things to do out here

The geocache stashes out here are unreal too. I plan on adding to the geocache population out on the San Rafael Swell myself this Spring! Check out my post on a DIY geocache stash swag

Camping is the best out here if you’re into primitive camping. You should see it around Easter! The landscape becomes full of campers, RV’s, tents, and plenty of ATV rides in all sizes. The locals call it “Easter’n”. Come sunshine, rain, and most times snow and freezing temperatures, most of the Emery County and Carbon County population go out to camp and recreate in the San Rafael Swell for Easter. 

During the Spring runoff period and if we have a good winter, floating the San Rafael River is an adventure must. Check out my post on my experience with floating the river. I plan on doing this again at any chance I get. 

There aren’t a lot of designated hiking trails on this side but plenty to explore on your own. However, ATV trails are in abundance.

Geology in the Swell 

You’ll find a lot of the same formations that are scattered throughout Utah. Some of it looks like the formations found in Zions National Park, Moab, Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef National Parks. In fact when I visited Capital Reef National Park, I said it looked like “our” desert but more red.

History in San Rafael Swell
Markers identifying The Old Spanish Trail

Native Americans, settlers, and miners helped develop this land and cultivated a story or two.

Of course we see the presence of Native Americans through the strange and wonderful paintings, carvings, and artifacts left behind. First used as a trade route and running from New Mexico to California, The Old Spanish Trail runs through the swell. There are people who still navigate the trail to this day! Old uranium mines remain, but dangerous to explore. They would be a fascinating part of history to see first hand but please don’t put yourself in harms way. 


You can expect to see antelope pretty much year round and abundantly in Buckhorn Flat. Deer, prairie dogs, and even wild horses and burros in some areas. I’ve spent plenty of time out on the swell and only in the last couple of years did I get the pleasure of seeing bighorn sheep up close and personal. They really are magnificent creatures, but if you spot some, please be smart about approaching them. They will run from you, and are extremely fast, but you never know.

Best time to visit

In order to get a good visit in especially if you’re traveling far, I would recommend anywhere between April to about mid June. In the summer, it can get pretty hot and most of all buggy.

Then try September to whenever it decides to snow on a regular basis. I made pretty frequent visits up to December and January this year and had gorgeous weather.

Let me tell you, when you’re hanging out in the desert in February and you actually see winter coming, you should probably start packing up your picnic stuff because it comes fast!


Check out the video for a little time warp of Buckhorn Wash in the Winter for your viewing pleasure!

San Rafael River float

A Utah adventure you have to experience. See San Rafael Swell’s “Little Grand Canyon” from a different point of view!

Floating down the San Rafael River was one of the most rewarding adventures I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. You get to see the “Wedge” or Little Grand Canyon in the San Rafael Swell from below. A whole new way to see the desert here!

Look at all the stripes!

I went in early June 2017 after a very nice winter with a lot of snow pack in the mountains. That’s the sad part, you can only do this if the conditions are right. 

I went with a bunch of friends that had rented a couple large river rafts and a very knowledgable man in the paddling seat! I don’t recommend doing this without the proper equipment, and going alone is a bad idea if you’re not experienced.

You can see the rest of our party way ahead of us!

This is just a little story about my trip and to inspire others to do the same. If you’re not near the area, I would suggest doing a little research to find out the conditions of the river first. I would plan on going in May or early June. Besides, it gets pretty hot out there with no shade at all. 

I do know you can look at raft rentals at and follow instructions there to book the rentals. 

We dropped a vehicle off at The Swinging Bridge by the river and drove down to Fullers Bottom to launch. The high cliffs with all the desert varnish and rock formations so familiar to this area start to come into view as you float lazily down the river. So peaceful, so stunning. There is a great place off to the right to stop and have lunch or to take a break and walk around. It’s called Virgin Spring Canyon and it’s about the halfway point. There are some pictographs a little ways down the canyon to check out. People camp here too, and if you can get a spot, it would be a great place to do it.

Pictograph at Virgin Spring Canyon
Too gorgeous for words!
Look at the hole!
They call this doghead for obvious reasons.
There’s the bridge!

I am hoping to do this adventure again hopefully in the near future. But unfortunately we are at the mercy of a good winter. So we will see….